A muted chase story set in the Civil War-era American South, it’s easy to say that Chris Eska’s sophomore feature The Retrieval fits into a recent wave of movies about African-American history. Looking closer, though, all of these movies – Twelve Years a Slave, Django Unchained, Red Tails, Lincoln, Selma – are so heterodox in their subject matter and approaches it’s hard to see what purpose that generalisation might serve. Perhaps the most important difference between these films and previous Hollywood attempts to address slavery or segregation is that – Lincoln aside – they no longer feel that a liberal-minded white protagonist is necessary to make these stories palatable.
There are white men in The Retrieval, but – barring a vivid supporting turn from prolific horror-movie actor Bill Oberst Jr as the bounty hunter who sets the plot in motion – they’re mostly noises off. Literally, in the case of the opening scene, where Will, a young black man played by Ashton Sanders, makes his way to a barn where he knows fugitive slaves are being sheltered. Initially, it looks like there’s a thunderstorm on the horizon, but as the lightning flashes keep coming we realise this is the cannon-fire of a distant battle. It’s 1864, Grant and Sherman are somewhere over the next hill, but for the rest of the film we’re staying with Will.
This small scale can be a limitation of low-budget period pieces, and there are some moments during The Retrieval where you’re acutely aware that if the camera went back another foot or two there’d be power lines or an interstate highway in shot. But Eska’s script makes it an asset. He keeps the focus on three main characters, all African-American and all played by exceptional actors – Sanders, Keston John and Computer Chess’s Tishuan Scott – as they travel through a war-torn America to collect a bounty.
The quarry, although he doesn’t know it, is Nate (Scott), a quiet man accused of murder, and Will and Marcus (John) have been sent by a team of white bounty hunters to deliver him. Will and Marcus’s race makes them fearsomely effective at tracking down black fugitives – nobody expects an African-American to facilitate a lynching – but at no point does the film stand in judgment of them. Sanders plays Will’s developing conscience with great skill – remarkably, this is his only screen credit to date – but there is no element of hindsight. This is not a film about a struggle that defined a country. This is a film about people trapped in the middle, trying to plot a course through a corrupt system that could turn on them at any minute.
The Retrieval is difficult material. It eschews easy binaries about the morality of the Civil War in favour of an unsparing look at how desperate the situation was on the ground. In this, it recalls Cormac McCarthy’s classic novel Blood Meridian, which similarly recast Manifest Destiny as an every-man-for-himself nihilist free-for-all, untouched by any considerations of morality.
But, unlike McCarthy’s grandiloquent, gory apocalypse, Eska’s visual and narrative style is defined by restraint and compassion. There are only a couple of moments of violence, both of which are effective despite their discretion, and Eska creates a lot of pit-stops in the action to explore his characters. Its atmosphere is helped by Matthew Wiedemann’s haunting score, including some well-used contributions from Yellow 6 and Dickon Hinchcliffe, and Yasu Tanida’s wintry, evocative cinematography. Blessedly, Tanida and Eksa manage to evoke something of the character of rural Texas – in the swamps, in the woods, as the sun goes down – without being shamelessly imitative of Terrence Malick, which puts them ahead of a lot of young American indie talent.